On 2 February 1963 more than one hundred people from the Barisan Sosialis and the trade unions were detained, thus eliminating them as possible candidates in the general election to be held later in the year. These included the top political actors of the day: Lim Chin Siong, Poh Soo Kai, Lim Hock Siew, and Said Zahari.
Lim Chin Siong died in 1996; the other three headed the list of signatories who issued an open statement last week, (19 Sep 2011), along with 13 others, including those detained in other ‘operations’, calling for the abolition of the ISA. They were among the longest-serving detainees, incarcerated for almost two decades.
With keen anticipation, minimyna thought that after half a century, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) would finally silence its critics once and for all with the nitty gritty details which would pin down the subversive activities of at least the 16 signatories. After all, they asked for it. The rationale then for using the Internal Security Act rather than charging them in court was that the security situation was too volatile, and no one would have dared to testify against them.
This was indeed the moment for hard truths, to be found in the repositories of the Internal Security Department, and the Ministry of Home Affairs. The 16 were playing for high stakes. They were taking the risk of being thoroughly discredited.
Former political detainees on the offensive
At least since the last decade, the Cold Store detainees have protested their innocence, condemned the way the ISA had been used, and called for its abolition. They were not only out for personal vindication, but argued that Operation Cold Store decimated the left wing as a political force, and led to the imposition of an authoritarian political system. But Cold Store was only the first and most massive detention which the PAP government ordered. The Act was used throughout the 1970s. The last mass arrest launched against alleged communists was in 1987, which Teo Soh Lung has given an account of in Behind the Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner, which refuted claims that she was involved in any conspiracy, Marxist or otherwise, and detailed the logic that obtained in the Whitley detention centre.
The Ministry of Home Affairs had issued a short statement in 2006 when two former detainees—Tan Jing Quee and Michael Fernandez, spoke at a public forum, reiterating that the two had been members of the Communist United Front (CUF), and that while ex-detainees and their families were allowed to ‘enjoy the prosperity’ of Singapore, they would not be allowed to ‘re-write history’ and thereby mislead the young. (ST 8 March 2006) Aside from this blanket, generic statement, there has been no further elucidation on the charges made by the two that they were falsely accused, and of the mental and physical tortures which were inflicted on them.
Now, in a ‘never say never’ moment, the Singapore authorities faced questions about whether it would abolish the ISA when the Malaysian government announced that it would do so on 15 May. In 1991, and again in 1994 Singapore leaders had said that should Malaysia make such a move, they would consider doing so, or at least it would be ‘a factor’ in their calculations. (ST 17 October 2011) The public statement signed by the 16 former political detainees ensued from this.
Where’s the homework?
It was with utter disbelief and disappointment that minimyna read the MHA statement. Visions came to mind of high-level bureaucrats, including those in the Intelligence Service, who somehow have not kept up with their reading nor have an understanding of the issues, pouring through fifty years of official statements and cutting and pasting from them. But how could that be? We are told that the ISA is an indispensable piece of legislation that has served the nation well at critical junctures of threats to its security. Surely the MHA would realize the enormous significance of their task. The rebuttal to the open statement has to be head-on and meet the highest standards of fact and logic. Yet it turned out to be such an unbelievably sloppy job.
Take this classic paragraph:
4 On the issue of length of detention under the ISA, whether a person’s detention is extended depends on whether he still poses a security threat. For example, detainees who refused to renounce violence were detained for longer periods until they were assessed to no longer pose a security threat to society, whereas others who renounced violence and no longer posed a security threat were released much sooner.
‘Renouncing violence’ here means putting one’s signature to a written statement saying so.
MHA officials should have on file at the very least the Straits Times interview with Dr Lim Hock Siew, imprisoned for 20 years and released unconditionally, and whose name heads the list of signatories calling for the abolition of ISA. Dr Lim stated that since he had never advocated violence, he should not have to renounce it, even though putting his signature to a statement saying so would have gained his release. “It is like making me sign a statement that I would not beat my wife”. (’Still dreaming of a socialist Singapore’ ST 19 February 2010,) Dr Lim had made his life-long position clear in his 1972 statement explaining that he demanded nothing less than unconditional release, but this was suppressed in the local media at the time. This stand on principle has been made by all long-serving detainees, and not only those in Singapore.
There is also footage aplenty on Youtube of Dr Lim making statements on the abuse of the ISA which would certainly open him to libel charges should they be proven false. Dr Lim has also called for a Commission of Inquiry so that people like himself, now in old age, can have the privilege to answer the charges put forth by MHA.
MHA should also certainly be up to speed with The Fajar Generation, cited by Dr Lim when he referred to a Colonial Office document in which British Commissioner Lord Selkirk mentioned a Singapore Special Branch report of 1962 that outlined plans ‘to provoke Lim Chin Siong into unconstitutional action.’ This was to be followed by mass detentions. Selkirk stated that ‘we have made it clear to Lee (Kuan Yew) that we regard the Special Branch Paper more as an attack on a political party than on the communists.’ (Tan Jing Quee, ‘Merger and decimation of the Left-Wing in Singapore’ The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaya and Singapore  pp. 282-3)
Apart from Dr Lim, other former political detainees who have spoken and/or published to refute the charges made against them included Said Zahari, Dr Poh Soo Kai, Tan Jing Quee. Michael Fernandez and Loh Miao Gong. Loh won the seat of Havelock in the 1963 general election, but was arrested soon after in Operation Pechah, and was not allowed to be present for the swearing in of Members of Parliament. She was released unconditionally only in 1970. (‘The Two Faces of Men in White’, in The May 13 Generation: The Chinese Middle School Student Movement and Singapore Politics in the 1950s )
A Damning Story
The Straits Times identified Dr Poh Soh Kai as the person who according to the MHA statement had in 1974 given medical assistance to a Communist Party of Malaya saboteur.
Indeed when this story broke in Feb 1977 the newspapers carried extensive reports that Dr Poh had driven to Johor for this clandestine purpose. It was a convincing and damning story, told by a person who was present.
Except that the narrative was part of a ‘confession’ by a political detainee, who in fact was to retract it.
A question was raised in Parliament by a PAP backbencher as to why this particular detainee, who had ‘denounced the use of violence as advocated by the Communist Party of Malaya’ was not released, unlike others in his cohort who had signed the document to that effect. The Minister’s reply was that ‘detention for further interrogation was necessary on account of the retraction.’ (Singapore Parliamentary Debates, 2 Sep 1977, ST 3 Sep 1977)
The person was freed after one year with no further developments about the ‘bomber case’ thereafter, and the Medical Council never received any complaints against Dr Poh lodged by the Attorney-General’s Chambers, which it was going to but for the retraction.
It sure is odd that the MHA would want to dig up this story as part of the indictment against the signatories!
Dr Poh Soo Kai, on reading this blog, sent the following statement:
1. When I was detained in 1976, the detention order, except for the catch-all 'pro-communist' activities, had nothing else.
2. My newspapers in prison were heavily censured. I found out that I was supposed to have gone to Johor to give medical treatment to a suspected bomber from the prison grapevine.
3. I DID NOT TREAT ANY SUSPECTED BOMBER
Cracks in the ‘Conspiracy’
Even more in urgent need of a substantive and documented MHA ‘rebuttal’ are the 7 signatories, if not the other 1987 detainees in Operation Spectrum who were labeled as ‘Marxist Conspirators’. After all, questions about that have surfaced, significantly not only from the detainees themselves. It is on the authority no less of then prime minister Goh Chok Tong, speaking to Straits Times journalists who were writing the fiftieth anniversary volume of the PAP’s history that we learn that:
Dhanabalan was not comfortable with the way the PAP government had dealt with the Marxist group in 1987….At the time, given the information, he was not fully comfortable with the action we took…His makeup is that of a very strong Christian so he felt uncomfortable and thought there could be more of such episodes in future. So he thought that since he was uncomfortable, he’d better leave the cabinet. I respected him for his view.’ (Men in White: The untold story of Singapore’s ruling political party  p. 468)
In addition, senior Straits Times journalist Chua Mui Hoong, who was commissioned to write Pioneers Once More: The Singapore Public Service 1959-2009, in discussing the ‘making’ of the book, mentioned that “Circumstances surrounding the arrest of the so-called ‘Marxist conspirators’ and the aftermath are another instance of public policy which calls out for further study”, suggesting that it was at least controversial, if not acknowledged as a mistakes. (ST 22 May 2010)
It would not be amiss for the public to think that the 1987 detainees deserve a proper MHA reply.
The Act and its Execution
In the recent Presidential Elections, the subject of the ISA led to ‘heated words’ and an ‘outburst’ when then presidential candidate Dr Tony Tan interrupted Tan See Jay to interject that it was a very serious charge to say that the ISA has been used against political opponents. He had also said, ‘The ISA is a very blunt instrument that should only be used in the most extreme circumstance.’
Just how blunt an instrument it is can be seen in particular in the lives of those who had been detained for more than a decade, but the length of deprivation of a normal life is not the only measure. The decades of silence of more than one generation of detainees speak also of the fear of re-arrest (as happened to Dr Poh Soo Kai), and the trauma and loss of dignity of those who were broken by having signed ‘confessions’ in order to gain release, especially when these incriminated others.
Indeed, so blunt an instrument is the ISA, and so totally under the Executive branch of government, that even a single case of its mis-use, intentionally or otherwise that has not been publicly acknowledged, should lead to questions about its continued existence, for what is brought to attention is the relationship between the Internal Security Department, and the Executive, which has been in the hands of the same party and leadership for the past fifty years.
Changing the course of history
The landmark presidential campaign has thrown up another quotable quote on the ISA. Dr Tan Cheng Bock, pressed for an explanation for his support as head of the Feedback Unit for the 1987 arrests during which time he was head of the Feedback Unit said that he was then acting to the best of his knowledge based on the information he was given. (ST 13 Aug 2011) He added: ‘I sympathise with the people who were involved because of what they have gone through. But I cannot change the course of history.’
But the course of history can indeed be changed. This will happen in this instance when the claims of Dr Lim and the others are shown to be valid. Mainstream history then would have to re-write their roles, and of those who ordered their detention.
If MHA simply persists with its blinkered regurgitation of clichés, similarly, the course of history would be changed, for the credibility and public confidence in MHA and other governmental institutions would be undermined.
But surely there is no need for an inconsequential minimyna to pontificate thus to her betters?
Then a horrifying thought struck her bird-brain.
What if that was really the best that they or anyone in their position could do?
By Dr Lysa Hong.
All pictures from: singaporerebel.blogspot.com.